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Tricks for concise scientific writing #wordcountchop

Posted by , on 18 March 2022

Often in scientific writing, we are up against strict limits, whether it be the number of words for a conference abstract, the number of pages for a grant proposal or even just the number of characters in a Tweet. Below I’ve summarised a list of writing tricks to help you reduce the number of words in your scientific writing purely by changing the grammar and without sacrificing key information, clarity or accuracy. If you are not trying to fit within a specific word limit, then these tricks need not apply and instead write however you like. I do, however, think there is a case that concise writing can be clearer and more accessible, but that’s a matter of style and preference.

I’ve organised these tips in tables, in order from the easiest changes to do (remove and replace) to those changes that require more thought (rephrase). Within each table, tricks are organised in descending order with the most effective (i.e. most words chopped) at the top.

Take a look at the Twitter thread and #wordcountchop, for the list and other contributions from the community and add your own tips using the comments below.

1. Remove

First, aim to remove all unnecessary or redundant words and phrases to streamline your text and focus on the key points.

Cut phraseExample/notes
It has been shown that (5)

(Also see Tense in Table 3 below)
It has been shown that X interacts with… (8)
X interacts with… (3)
X and colleagues show
X and colleagues have shown
In a study by X and colleagues

(or any of the above with ‘co-workers’ or ‘et al’)
Unless you are directly comparing two or more studies (e.g. to reconcile conflicting results) it is not necessary to mention studies by name. If you do choose to do so, make sure you mention all studies by name otherwise it appears biased.
To be able (3)To be able to determine X… (5)
To determine X… (3)
In this article (3)
In this article, we discuss… (5)
Here, we discuss… (3)
We discuss… (2)
In order (2)In order to determine X…. (5)
To determine X… (3)
Which is (2)X, which is a transcription factor, … (6)
X, a transcription factor, … (4)
Will (1)

(Also see Tense in Table 3 below)
Here, we will discuss… (4)
Here, we discuss… (3)
We discuss… (2)

X will then translocate… (4)
X then translocates… (3)
X translocates… (2)

2. Replace

Don’t be overzealous with cuts, sometimes it is necessary to re-orientate the reader or relate various concepts with each other. Here, you can replace some lengthy phrases or unweidly grammar with shorter, or more precise, alternatives.

Due to the fact that (5)As (1)
Due to the fact that we could not… (8)
As we could not… (4)

Because (1)
Possibly due to the fact that X can… (8)
Possibly because X can… (4)
It had been previously thought that X (8)Historically, X was thought to… (5)
It was thought that X… (5)
Has an effect on (4)
(Positively/negatively) regulates (2)
(Positively/negatively) modulates (2)
Controls (1)
Increases (1)
Activates (1)
Promotes (1)
Drives (1)
Facilitates (1)
Maintains (1)

Decreases (1)
Inhibits (1)
Prevents (1)
Suppresses (1)
Attenuates (1)
Antagonises (1)
Has the capacity to (4)
Is able to (3)
Can (1)
In this case (3)Here (1)
It is possible that X (4)
One possibility is that X (5)
X may (2)
One possibility is that X induces Y. (7)
X may induce Y. (4)
It is thought that X (5)
It is believed that X (5)
X might (2)
X could (2)
X may (2)
It is thought that X interacts with Y. (8)
X might interact with Y. (5)
At the same time (4)Concurrently (1)
Simultaneously (1)

Sometimes appropriate (can also refer to space as well as time)
In parallel (2)
Coincident (1)
On the other hand (4)Alternatively (1)
In contrast (2)
To start off with (4)
To begin with (3)
First of all (3)
First (1)
A number of (3)Many (1)
The majority of (3)Most (1)
In regards to (3)
With regards to (3)
Regarding (1)
As well as (3)And (1)
Together with (2)
In particular (2)Specifically (1)
The most important (3)
The most significant (3)
The primary (2)
The key (2)
As (1)
Because (1)
Since (1)
; (0)
X activates Y because (the) loss of X reduces Y. (10)
X activates Y; loss of X reduces Y. (8)
[…]. This X… (2)

‘This’, when used alone, is imprecise and unclear. It’s better to immediately qualify what ‘this’ refers to; for example, ‘X’ here could mean ‘this experiment’, ‘this approach’, ‘this protein’, ‘this cell’, etc.
, (0)

[…]. This result indicates that… (4)
[…], indicating that… (2)

, which (1)
[…], which indicates that… (3)
Such as (2)Like (1)
Including (1)
During which (2)When (1)
As opposed to (3)Rather than (2)
Time period (2)Time (1)
Period (1)
For example, …. (2)
For instance, …. (2)
Such as, …. (2)
(e.g. …) (1)
X interacts with co-factors, such as Y, Z and A. (10)
X interacts with co-factors (e.g. Y, Z and A). (9)

3. Rephrase

Finally, use grammar to your advantage. These tricks require a bit more conscious editing to rephrase the whole sentence or clause properly but, generally, you can convey the same message just as clearly.

Abbreviations and acronyms

Abbreviate but don’t use more than one or two unfamiliar abbreviations and make sure you define them all on first use. Generally, don’t abbreviate single words or words that you use only once to help readability.
Familiar to developmental biologists: ChIP, ECM, EMT, ESC, NCC, PSC, HSC, SVZ, RA, PBS, TF etc.

Try to use a consistent tense throughout your article. If you say in the first paragraph, ‘one study has shown…’ do not then switch to, ‘one study showed’.

Bear in mind that tense also changes the tone. Present tense makes the article feel timely and recent, whereas past tense does the opposite.
Present-perfect to present simple:
X has been shown to be Y. (6)
X is Y. (3)

It has been shown that X interacts with Y. (9)
X interacts with Y. (4)

Present perfect to past simple:
Using X they have shown Y. (6)
Using X they showed Y. (5)

Future simple to present simple:
X will determine… (3)
X determines… (2)
Possessive nounsThe X domain of Y… (5)
Y’s X domain… (3)

Overexpression of Y in Z cells… (6)
Y overexpression in Z cells… (5)
US English grammar

Using the US English em dash without spaces joins up words that the UK en dash would not.
X interacts with Y – but not Z – in Q cells. (12)
X interacts with Y—but not Z— in Q cells. (9) or
X interacts with Y, but not Z, in Q cells. (10)
Hyphenate adjectives

(See also possessive nouns)
The domain of X that binds to DNA… (8)
X’s DNA-binding domain… (3)

Allows X to be specifically expressed in Q cells. (9)
Allows Q cell-specific expression of X. (6)
PluralsIn the X… (3)
In Xs… (2)

Phylogeny is your friend but use it with caution. It is better to be as specific as possible. Most scientists, however, usually consider that if something is true/conserved in mice and humans, it is ‘conserved in mammals’ etc.
Mice and rats

Rodents and humans (or other mammals)

Mammals and birds and/or reptiles

Fish and amphibians

Amniotes and anamniotes

Last updated: 22/03/2022

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